O’Neill defends role in promoting RHI scheme to farmers

Michelle O'Neill. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Michelle O'Neill. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill has defended her role in promoting the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme when she was the agriculture minister.

A number of MLAs have claimed Mrs O’Neill has “questions to answer” after it emerged the agriculture department held 58 workshops publicising the scheme, and its generous financial benefits, to farmers.

Sammy Wilson, of the DUP, said that when Mrs O’Neill was promoting the RHI, she was acting on the same information available at the time to his party leader, Arlene Foster.

“She has just as many questions to answer as she claimed Arlene Foster had,” Mr Wilson said.

Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie said that after the election, Mrs O’Neill should not take her seat as deputy first minister until an inquiry into the scandal has concluded.

“There is clear evidence she knew what was going on and what was happening,” Mr Beattie added.

However, defending her role in promoting the scheme, Mrs O’Neill told BBC News NI: “There was a scandal which was created by the DUP.

“This is all about deflection, the fact is the DUP were the architects of the scheme and they failed to correct the problems with the scheme.”

Asked if she was the one who had acted irresponsibly, Mrs O’Neill said: “Absolutely not.”

She also said she did not regret holding seminars promoting the RHI because promoting the scheme to farmers was “the right thing to do at the time”.

She added: “I’m perfectly content with my position.”

The SDLP and Alliance have asked Mrs O’Neill to clarify exactly when she became aware there were financial problems with RHI.

The fallout from the scandal surrounding the scheme, which is approximately £490 million over budget, resulted in the resignation of Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, the collapse of Stormont’s institutions and the calling of snap elections on March 2.

Set up in 2012, the scheme was intended to increase the creation of heat from renewable sources.

However, businesses have been receiving more in subsidies than they are paying for renewable fuel and the scheme became highly oversubscribed.

Mrs O’Neill’s party colleague Gerry Kelly MLA has also defended the new Sinn Fein Northern Ireland leader and said it was not the job of the Department of Agriculture to reinvestigate a scheme that had been put together by another department.

Mr Kelly told BBC Radio Ulster Talkback that Sinn Fein moved immediately to have the scheme shut down when it became clear it was flawed.

“When a department puts together a scheme, it is their job to make sure it is proofed, that everything is perfect, or as perfect as it can be. When it is handed to another department to assist in promoting...their job is not to investigate it again.”